Wildland recreation and human waste: A review of problems, practices and concerns

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Environmental Management

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Proper disposal of human waste is an important concern for the appropriate management of wildlands. This paper reviews the state of knowledge regarding pathogens and human waste disposal in dispersed backcountry recreation areas in the United States. Of concern is the impact of travelers, such as backpackers, backcountry skiers, and mountaineers, in areas where toilets are not provided. At this time, the magnitude of problems related to human waste disposal in wildlands is unclear. Aesthetics and water contamination with the resultant potential for disease transmission are the predominant issues. Few studies have analyzed the aesthetics of human waste disposal. In wildlands, contamination of water sources primarily originates from surface soil. The fate of enteric pathogens on or in soils is highly variable and dependent on the complex interactions of many factors, most importantly soil type, moisture, and temperature. It is difficult to make general recommendations that apply to all ecosystems. There is still a relative dearth of studies that allow the manager or visitor to come up with specific practices that are the best for their area. The preferred method of disposal remains to dig a small hole (cat hole) and bury the waste. Other site specific methods are also discussed. Treatment of drinking water has become standard practice for most backcountry travel. With such treatment, there is little evidence currently to suggest that the health hazard to humans is great enough to impose further regulation in areas currently using cat holes.

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